Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Everything connects

In practical terms, what can a university do to encourage the sense that "everything connects", that the individual disciplines concern aspects of a "whole", that the meaning of those disciplines depends on that which transcends them? In many cases it is not possible to redesign the curriculum. Nevertheless, it must be possible to do things within existing structures that will move things gradually in the right direction. We spoke, for example, of the importance of allowing opportunities for students to acquire first-hand experience of nature, whether through gardening or field trips, and also of other cultures
and points of view through excursions, pilgrimages, visiting speakers and debates. Film, drama, literature, music and art also brings people together across the university. Interdisciplinary research projects and discussions can always be encouraged and facilitated.

Christopher Dawson would argue that we need to introduce more study of cultural history. Every discipline has a fascinating historical dimension, through which the student can glimpse a broader human and cultural meaning beyond the present content and procedures of the field. But we must not "abstract" the discipline in another way, by forgetting that it lives in us and in the students, not just in a set of textbooks or even in a history. There are personal reasons and experiences which have led us into this field of study, and often these are linked to the search for truth, beauty and meaning. Admittedly many students will respond that they have come the college for economic and vocational reasons, simply to earn a qualification for a profession. Yet surely they need to ask themselves some deeper questions about the profession they have chosen and its ultimate meaning and purpose.

Thus in addition to the focus on history, and the cultivation of a broader imagination, and the facilitation of contact across disciplines, a key role will be played by philosophy, precisely in helping to awaken those deeper questions and assist in finding answers to them. What makes philosophy so important is the fact that, while we may not all be chemists or medical students or mathematicians, we are all philosophers, whether we realize it or not. We all try or pretend to think rationally, we all operate on philosophical assumptions, we all have moral views - the more unexamined, the less coherent these are likely to be. Thus as well as a historical dimension, each subject has a philosophical dimension that cannot be evaded, and some exploration of this dimension must lead in the direction of the "whole truth" where the University finds its principle of unity.

As for theology, it cannot be separated from spirituality and from the life of prayer and service. Thus, as one of the faculty pointed out to me, we should not forget friendship and also humility as playing an essential role in the healing of the university. It is friendship that really transcends the barriers between one subject and another, and humility that enables each of us to participate in the community and tradition of scholarship, keeping us open to the possibility that we may have something more to learn, even (or perhaps especially) from colleagues in another field.

These thoughts are being set down during my enforced layover among my new friends in Houston, while the ash cloud hangs over Europe. Readers may not be aware of an earlier discussion of Beauty for Truth's Sake on our community pages. There I try to list the particular books from my bibliography that would particularly help with further and deeper study of these questions - one is certainly Vance Morgan's excellent book on Simone Weil's approach to mathematics and geometry, Weaving the World (summarized and reviewed here), elements of which are woven into my fourth chapter.

Illustration - The University in 1350, by Laurentius de Voltolina, from Wikipedia Commons.

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